Fit to Survive: The Importance of Being Strong

By James Wesley, Rawles (

I have been an athlete all my life in one form or another. I hear many survival and preparedness enthusiasts’ talk about fitness, health, and well being (being in sound physical condition) but I have yet to see a thorough guide to becoming “fit” for a survival scenario. I have heard Crossfit mentioned a few times on this web site and while I agree that Crossfit is a decent program to get someone “fit” it is not the end all solution to everyone’s needs. Crossfit is merely a re-hashing of things that have been around for a very, very long time but have been given a new face. We have all seen “fitness” fads come and go, from Richard Simmons to Jazzercise to P90X to the newest “Cave Man” Training, and yet we are still getting more obese and more out of shape as a nation year after year. The problem is twofold and lies with our understanding and application of sound “fitness” principles and methods.

The reason I keep putting “fit” and “fitness” in quotes is because there is no way to actually define “fitness” and so it is largely up to the individual to determine what “fitness” is. If you look up the definition of fitness Merriam Webster will simply tell you that fitness is the quality of being fit! In nature the deciding factor in determining “fitness” is who lives and who dies. It doesn’t matter who was stronger, faster, or smarter, but who survived; those who survive are deemed “fit”. Similarly is sports, if someone wins, they are deemed “fit”. So “fitness” is a very elusive term made up of smaller, more definable terms like strength, speed, and endurance. I have found, over the years, that fitness is simply a person’s capacity to perform and can be built up by increasing things like strength, speed, and endurance. In order to access “fitness” and build it, we must determine the needs that must be met in order to perform.

The reason to identify need is because need addresses the S.A.I.D. principle, which simply means “Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands”, or more simply that our body will only adapt to the demand we place on it and that it will adapt specifically. For instance, while you can improve your general physical preparedness by cycling, cycling will not improve your ability as a runner; only running can make you a better runner. We don’t want to spend all our time on a bicycle only to find out that survival is a footrace. To find the needs of a survival situation we need only look to the experience of others in times of crisis, war, emergency, etc. Being a former Marine I tend to look at war as a good measure of the needs of survival, since a military campaign will have all the elements of a survival scenario with the addition of being shot at. To clarify, I don’t mean Modern Warfare (not to disparage our soldiers on the modern battlefield, but I think that most of our WW1 and WWII vets would be shocked to see the kind of battlefield luxury that our modern soldiers enjoy). I am talking about warfare that went on during the Revolutionary War all the way up to WWII, where soldiers had to carry everything they needed to fight and survive on their backs, make do in the most austere conditions (the Frozen Chosin and the Battle of Bastogne come to mind), and at the end of the day fight for their lives and country. So what qualities would help someone be a more capable war fighter?

Let me just get this out of the way: running is not the answer. There I said it. Running is the cornerstone of our military’s fitness structure and I can tell you from personal experience that running doesn’t make anyone a better war fighter. I am not saying that running doesn’t have its place, I love to run, but it must be used in the proper context in order to help and not hinder us. Many long distance runners are plagued by infection and sickness because of all the stress that long distance running places on the body. Some also have very little muscle mass, are very weak both muscularly and structurally (their bones and ligaments), and actually have higher body fat percentages (20 +) than you would think. (They look lean because of the lack of muscle mass). On top of all this about 65 of runners report sports related injuries every year! I am a huge advocate of short, quick runs, and have seen their benefit across different age groups and backgrounds. I haven’t run over two miles in years and I am more fit than 99% of the people I encounter. When people tell me that they are going for a run I usually ask them what they are running from. Think about what kind of movement you are likely to be doing in a survival situation. If you aren’t hunkered down at your retreat you are either going to be on patrol (slow, steady, walking), cross country trekking (slow, steady, walking with a heavy pack), or running for cover (all out sprint, with or without gear). What good will it do you if you are used to running 5 miles a day in jogging shorts and Nikes if, when the S.H.T.F., you find yourself unused to rucking with a heavy pack? The blisters will build up on your feet, hips (where the pack rubs), and shoulders which will inhibit your mobility and can lead to infection. You will also get tensions headaches from the strain on your shoulders and neck, which can be some of the worst discomfort a person can experience. What I am saying is that running has a place in a well thought out training program, but should not be the focus of one.

I once heard a Special Forces operator say that there is no such thing as too strong, only too slow. This is true in any situation. Strength is the foundation of all athletic ability; the stronger someone is, the better they are able to perform. Think of it like this: while you can build up a 4 cylinder to almost do the job of a V-8, it’s much easier to simply start out with a V-8. If we look at vehicle engines we see that there is a mechanical advantage to having a big engine when there is heavy work to be done, the heavier the load the bigger the engine needed. So why should survival be any different? Strength should be the number one priority of anyone who is interested in survival. I have never met a soldier who told me that they wished they had been weaker or skinnier. Strong people are generally more useful and much harder to kill than weaker people. A stronger person is much more likely to survive anything than a weaker person. Gunshot wound? A stronger man will survive over a weaker one. Sickness, infection, or plague? A stronger man will survive over a weaker one. A stronger man will also handle the stress of manual labor and constant vigilance better than a weaker one.

Training for strength is a pursuit that will not only develop the strength of the body, but the strength of the mind and the willpower. If you don’t believe me, spend a while developing a good Squat and Deadlift and tell me that you aren’t mentally and emotionally stronger because of the effort. When I first started lifting weights, I avoided things like the squat and the deadlift because my bodybuilding magazines said they were bad for my knees and back respectively, and they were simply hard to do. Consequently as a young man (19-23) I had a series of back and knee injuries that plagued me for years. A couple of years ago I developed sharp pains in my knees when I would walk up and down stairs, and I was only 26 years old! I decided to revamp my entire philosophy regarding fitness, health, and well being. I began looking into athletic training, because athletes put their body under such rigorous training and competition they had to know how to avoid injury. The one thing I found in common amongst almost all athletes (sprinters, hurdlers, throwers, jumpers, football players, baseball players, racecar drivers) is that strength training was a major part of their athletic development! All those baseball players aren’t taking steroids because it makes their biceps big! They are taking steroids because more strength equals better ball players! While I am not endorsing steroids, you cannot argue that the increased strength in these guys also increased their performance.

After gaining some insight into methods and practices of developing strength I began to Squat, Deadlift, Press, and Row with heavier weights than I had ever used before. Miraculously my knee problems disappeared, my back problems disappeared, and I have had no injury or lingering pain since I began these exercises! These four exercises, and their respective variations, are the cornerstone of developing a strong and healthy body. In fact the Deadlift used to be referred to as the “Health” Lift because it does so much to improve body function and health. Something else I found out was that regardless of how big or small my upper arms get, if I don’t have well developed hips and shoulders then I am going to be weak and injured.

It’s all about the hips. Say it with me, it’s all about the hips. The hips are the body’s engine, its where all the power of movement comes from. If you need to throw a punch you rotate your hips, unless you hit like a sissy. If you need to throw a ball you rotate your hips, unless you throw like a sissy. If you need to pull or push something, you get your hips in line before you do your pushing or pulling. The better developed your hips are the better you are able to throw, run, jump, swim, etc. Unless you are sitting down, and frankly the less of that the better (sitting down to often is what got us messed up in the first place), the hips are involved in every movement. As a test, stand up and throw a baseball. Now sit down and throw a baseball. Do you see the difference in power? It’s all about the hips.

The two best movements to develop the hips are the Squat and the Deadlift. I am not going to into length describing these movements; they have been dealt with ad nauseam by better men that me, so I will simply refer you to some of these better men. Simply go here for good instruction in the squat. The man coaching in the video is Dan John. If you are interested in getting stronger and “fit” and you don’t know Dan John then you aren’t that interested in getting stronger and “fit”. He recently wrote a book titled “Never Let Go” that I could not recommend more highly. Also, buy the book by Mark Rippetoe. Mark Rippetoe is one of the best coaches when it comes to training novices how to perform these movements, their accessory lifts, and how to get strong. These two gentlemen are a wealth of training knowledge and wisdom. Dan John has competed successfully in athletics since the 1960s and is a foremost expert on many different subjects ranging from fat lost to muscle gain to athletic success. If you want to do it, Dan John knows about it because he’s done it to himself; probably twice. I cannot stress enough the importance of these two movements. In my years as a trainer and instructor I have only seen improvements in strength and comfort in the lower back and knees using the squat and deadlift. These two movements are principle in the development of lasting strength, solid muscle mass, and a healthy skeletal system.

The shoulders make up the other half of the strength equation; they are the other half of the hips. The shoulders play a vital role in strength because while strength flows outwards from the hips, if the shoulders are not strong that strength will never reach the arms or hands. The shoulders are also the most flexible joint in the whole body and are thus the most fragile, proper strength training will keep them surgery free for life. A key to shoulder development is to always remember that there are two sides to the shoulder, a front and a back. Yes, I know technically there is a middle deltoid, but with proper exercise selection it will be developed in conjunction with the front and rear deltoids. The front half of the shoulder, along with the chest and triceps, is responsible for all pressing movements while the back of the shoulder, along with the traps, lats, and biceps, is responsible for all pulling movements. All of the major muscles of the upper body (upper body being defined as the ribcage up, lower body being the hips down, with the abs and lower back making up the core or “transmission” of the body) are attached to and move with the shoulders. You always want to pair a pressing movement with a pulling movement to balance the shoulder development (i.e. a pull up with a pushup). Muscular imbalances in any joint (especially the shoulder and knee) cause most of the joint problems we see today and can be avoided or corrected with proper training. You may also want to perform what is called prehab for the shoulder. Prehab typically refers to exercises that strength and correct muscular imbalances, for the shoulder this typically means the rotator cuffs. Look up rotator cuff exercises on Google and perform them as part of your warm-up every time you workout. If you work your shoulders properly you will have a lifetime of strength and vitality that will keep you away from surgery and pain free.

On a side note I want to talk about the American male’s most favorite exercise: the bench press. The Bench Press has been around since the 1970s and since then we have seen a dramatic increase in shoulder problems. The bench press puts the shoulder at an uncomfortable and weak angle to press weight from. Think about it, when you need to push a car, do you stand perfectly upright and press on it with your arms? No, you get down low, with your arms vertical in relation to your shoulders and your shoulders in line with your hips. Also, more people die on the bench press every year than any other movement performed in the gym. Think about it: you are putting your body between an immovable object (the bench) and a heavy weight (the bar) with no means of escape and only your strength to keep it from falling on your most vital bodily areas (the upper chest, neck, and face). A much safer exercise for the novice is a standing shoulder press, aka the Military Press. The reasons for this are twofold: 1) Your shoulder is in a more natural and strong position to press, mitigating the chance of injury, and 2) if you should goof up its really easy to just drop the bar down in front of you. As an added bonus if you work out at home, you don’t need a bench to perform a military press. I am not saying that you shouldn’t bench press, I do it fairly often. What I am saying is that it should not be your only pressing exercise and that you should perform this exercise with more caution and concern for good form than you do other exercises.

A healthy adult male at 5’10” or taller should [lift or press] weight at or above 200 lbs. A healthy adult male who is under 5’10” and above 5’4” should weight between 180 lbs & 200 lbs, and anyone shorter than 5’4” should get as close to 180 lbs as possible and healthy. All men under the age of 65 should be able to perform a double body-weight dead-lift, 1.5x body-weight squat, a body-weight bench press (or three quarter body-weight press), and 15 pull ups without falling off the bar (unless there are pre-existing injuries that prevent this, do the best you can with what you have). My grandfather could still do 20 dead hang pull-ups without dropping off the bar at 70 years old. If you think you are too old to do this kind of stuff then just take a look at Jack LaLanne. A healthy adult female 5’10” or taller should weight at or above 165 lbs. A healthy adult female between 5’10” and 5’4” should weight between 130 lbs and 150 lbs. Adult females below 5’4” should try to weight above 120 lbs. Adult females should be able to perform a double body-weight squat, a 1.5x body-weight dead-lift, a one half body-weight press (or a body-weight bench press), and 8 dead hang pull-ups without dropping off the bar. These numbers are not difficult to achieve and are not world class by far. What they are is a very general guideline that will lead you to a healthy adult body-weight and an appreciable level of strength. Women do not produce as much testosterone as men and therefore will not put on anywhere near the muscle mass that a man will and so their body-weight to height ratio will be lower (no women, you will not get big and muscle bound by lifting weights, you don’t have the right hormones). Also a woman’s upper body strength is very disproportionate to her lower body strength, a woman will be much stronger in the legs and hips than in the arms or shoulders (why the squat is heavier than the dead-lift).

In conclusion, I would like to better explain what I mean by strength. I don’t mean power lifter or strongman. Those guys carry around way too much muscle and fat to be healthy long term. The joint issues these guys have is astounding. Just take a look at Dave Tate’s career injuries. I am talking about developing a healthy amount of muscle and fat along with appreciable levels of strength (I will address fat in a subsequent article).

I am also not talking about gaining strength and forsaking speed, agility, or endurance. (Again, I will address fat in a subsequent article.) I think that you will find that an appropriate level of strength will not only complement your other athletic abilities but make you a more capable war fighter and in the long run increase your survivability.